Sunday, December 20, 2015

"Have Ears to Listen!"


A Sermon Based Upon Mark 4: 23-33

By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.    

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Third Sunday of Advent C, December 20th,  2015



“Whoever has ears to listen should pay attention!”  ----Mark 4: 23, CEB



We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.”

                                                                                                  ― Zeno of Citium  (334-262 BC)    



A famous text outside of today’s Scripture says “to whom much is given, much will be required” (Lk. 12:48).  There is certainly something that should be recognized about the requirement placed upon you, who Sunday after Sunday, listen to preachers and their sermons.  Much is required of you, I only hope as much is given.  



In regard to listening, Jesus had an interesting phrase in Mark’s gospel.  A more recent version of the Bible translates: “Whoever has ears to listen, should pay attention” (Mark 4:23, CEB). The King James version sounds a little redundant, but is more concise: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!“   When I was a kid at church, like most children, there were times I didn’t care to listen.  For my punishment, since my mother was most often sitting behind me, she would use her finger to thump my ear to remind me that I should straighten up and listen. 



In this fourth chapter of Mark, if you’ll excuse my expression, Jesus is about to ‘thump’ our ears to get us to pay close attention.   Mark’s Jesus is about to speak in parables.  Not everyone is going to understand, so he asks his disciples to pay close attention.  Truth is now under construction in your ears ; are you listening?   While Mark doesn’t take the time to share as many ‘parables’ as Matthew and Luke, he does expect us to ‘listen’ very intently to these he gives.   Mark’s Jesus even tells us why Jesus came to speak in parables in the first place.  



Most of us should already know the answer.  As we’ve already seen in Mark’s gospel, people are already out ‘gunning’ for Jesus (3.2; 22).   Because of those opposing him, Jesus explains to his own disciples that most will not understand what he is about.  The secret of God’s kingdom has been given to you, but to those who are outside everything comes in parables” (4:11), he says.    Jesus then continues to tell them why this is happening?  It’s a bit shocking, are you ready?  This is so they can look and see but have no insight, and they can hear but not understand.  Otherwise, they might turn their lives around and be forgiven (4:12).”   Did we just hear, what it sounds like we heard?  How could this saving, full of compassion Jesus, aka, the prince of peace, who said, “Father forgive”, ever say something like this?   



EVERYBODY WON’T UNDERSTAND

It sounds hard and harsh, but sometimes, reality can be that way.  Everybody who hears the truth, or even knows the truth, will not actually live out the truth they know to be true.   The seeds of the word of truth, which Jesus tells us about in his very familiar parable of the sower, are being broadcasted all around, but who is really listening?  Who is getting it?  Who will rightly respond?



Here, I’m reminded of the Donald Trump phenomenon late last summer.  Most every republican and democratic knows that Donald Trump is a Billionaire; neither a statesman nor a politician.  He really shouldn’t be up there, they said.  He insults people.  He tries to bully, divide conquer and hurt.  He seldom gives real answers.  He mostly recognizes the problems.  But what was so crude and rude about him is also what many liked about him.  He’s not the average person running for office, who must say what others want him to say.  The Donald only says what he wants to say. 



Donald Trump is someone much like Jessie Ventura.  Don’t you remember Jessie “the body” Ventura, the championship wrestler (or fake wrestler, that is) who once became the governor of Minnesota?  Everyone seemed to know that electing Jessie ‘the body” was a joke, but at the time, people in Minnesota had rather elect a ‘joke’, than have their elected leaders play jokes on them.   Perhaps Donald Trump is like the once electable “Jessie the body Ventura”.  Perhaps are tired of the same ole’ same ole’ in the political arena.  People would rather elect a clear ‘joke’ than be fooled by one.  If this is what’s going, things may be worse than we thought.   



For what it’s worth, what has always fascinated me about moments like this in politics is that political pundits and experts are seldom able to predict just how crazy and unlikely everything will turn be.  Democracy is unpredictable.  Even as “The Donald” still kept going up in the polls, everyone was predicting his popularity would not last as long as it did.  But it did.  The ‘rude’ and ‘crude’ Trump was not being serious or sane about the issues, the other candidates protested, but it still ‘trumped” what all the other candidates were saying.  Even when Fox News did not take “The Donald” seriously enough, Donald Trump trumped their version of the “truth” too, even though they too were saying that his version of the truth wasn’t true.  But no matter what ‘truth’ anyone else was saying, it seemed that it was only “The Donald’s” version of the truth that was getting through, and it didn’t matter whether it was all true or not.



Interestingly, that whole situation was not unlike what Jesus is saying in this text.   The ‘word’ of truth was being broadcasted like seeds are thrown around, but most are not taking root in any real way.  The ‘seed’ of truth falls on hardened ground.  The birds come and take the truth away before it can germinate.   The ground is not only hard, it’s also rocky, and the good soil is too shallow.  There’s just not much of the truth can do to take root.  Even when it does take root, it only gets burned up in the ‘heat’ of the moment.  Thorns and weeds are everywhere.  Jesus wants us to know just how hard it can be to get the real truth across.  Unless his disciples make some extra effort to understand exactly what’s going on, they will not get to the truth either.  There is always much more working against truth to keep it from bearing any real fruit than is working for it.   In a world of hard ground, shallow talk, all kinds of weeds, and heated arguments, how in the world could the truth ever hope to get into our lives?



When I lived in Europe, the official churches were, for the most part, empty.   There are all kinds of reasons the church is ‘officially’ dead in Europe.  In Germany, much of the church died at the hands of Adolf Hitler, who killed it by mixing religion and politics, convincing the church to follow him in his own lies and deceptions.   In Europe today, it could be claimed that since “enlightenment’ has finally trickled down to the people,  science, materialism and social welfare advancements have put the church and ‘the truth’ out of business.   Perhaps, the church may still have something nice to say to children, to the aged, for the oppressed or for the downtrodden, but now that science has finally given us a whole new set of answers about life, who needs religion or the church?  Besides, aren’t most of the world’s violence and problems due to religion?  



A while back I read a very interesting article at the British paper’s website called The Guardian posing this exact question: “Doesn’t religion cause most of the conflict in the world.”   What made the article interesting was that the answers it gave did not come from experts but from people, some religious, some not.   One answer came from a Muslim, another from a secular Jewish, one from an atheist, and finally, they let a Christian have the last word.  I guess they figured that, in the west at least, the Christian has the most to prove and the most to lose.   You should go online and read the article for yourself, but the overwhelming message was it is ‘careless’exaggeration’ to say that religion causes the major conflicts in the world.   While it is true that people have used religion to fuel hate, commit murder, or to fight wars, people have found just as many ways to fuel hate, stir violence, commit murder, or fight wars, without the help of religion.

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In this “Guardian” article it was the ‘secular’ Jewish fellow who told the most interesting, distrubing story.  He referred to a discussion that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins had at a dinner in London back in 2012.  It was not long before Hitchens’s died of cancer, when they were both known as two of the most eloquent atheists and anti-Christian thinkers in the world.  It was at that party, that Dawkins asked Hitchens: "Do you ever worry that if we win and Christianity is destroyed, that the religious vacuum this creates will be filled by Islam?"   Their point sounded a dangerous truth loud and clear: If people stop believing one thing, they will only start believing something else or they may be forced too.   The real question in life is not “will we believe” but “what”, “who” or “how” will we believe?  We WILL believe  something (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/02/religion-wars-conflict).



Interestingly, the wholescale questioning of all religious belief by some does not prove Jesus wrong, as much as it proves Jesus right.   Truth seldom bears the ‘fruit’ it should, not because it isn’t spoken, but because it isn’t wanted.   This is why Jesus feels he must speak in in parables---stories that require effort for the listener.  Jesus doesn’t speak in ‘parables’ because he wants to confuse people, but he speaks in parables because people sometimes don’t want to understand.   Quoting the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 6: 9-13), Jesus recalls another time prophets spoke the truth to people who didn’t want to hear it---and who would not listen until it was too late.   But even if most don’t want to understand, Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to become discouraged.  Though it has always been this way, it doesn’t have to be this way with them.



THOSE WHO LISTEN WILL BE FEW

Jesus says that for those who ‘listen’ and ‘pay attention’, it will make a world of difference in their hearts and in their lives.   He says that those who ‘hear the word (of truth) and embrace it’ will ‘bear fruit’ that gives great yields, sometimes even up to one hundred times above their own original investment of listening (4:20).  Wouldn’t getting higher dividend off of your investment make you also want to ‘pay attention’? 



When I went to college I made better grades than I did when I was in High School.  I made better grades in College because my father was now more obviously paying for my education.  It was part of the promise he made to me, when I worked in the family business for a small weekly allowance that came with a promise that he’d send me through college. 



After I graduate college, I got married and went to back to Seminary, not once but twice; once for a master’s degree, and then later for a doctorate.  It’s interesting to see that the more of my own money I had to invent,  how even better my grades became.  In high school I had a B+ average without much effort, but in college, with Dad footing the bill,  I  got an A minus average, graduating with honors, putting in more effort.  Then, when I got to Seminary, when I had to foot the entire bill, even though I was also working as a pastor, I got an “A” average. 



Finally, when I completed my doctorate, we only had eight classes, with a final doctoral project.   I made “A’s” in all those classes, except for one.  It was the very first class, which was the most difficult and most subjective, where we had to share our life stories and literally ‘pour out hearts and souls’.   When I got my grade, I expected an “A”, but got my only “B” of those three years.  I was very disappointed until later, when I discovered that all the other nine students also got “B’s”.  We got together to asked the two professors why they gave us all B’s.  They answered, “We knew you will work hard and make A’s the rest of the time, so we had to give you a “B” now, when the class is very subjective.  Besides, in a class where have to tell us who you are, only Jesus could make an ‘A’.  You can’t be Jesus, so all get a ‘B’.   If you think about it, this might even help you in your ministry more than anything else you’ll ever learn.



While we can’t certainly can’t know, in our right mind, the truth like Jesus declared saying, “I am the truth”, we can know the truth Jesus gave us in these parables.  Jesus even went on to say if his disciples would receive this truth, they would even receive more of it: “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given to you.  (4: 24-25).   Isn’t Jesus right?   This is how the truth works, isn’t it?   If you learn the basics of math, the basics of science, the basics of language, or even the basics of theology, you can more easily learn more of it.  It’s the same in all of work and life too.   But if you don’t’ master the most basic ideas, formulas or skills, then you will eventually run into a roadblock that is very hard to overcome.  Isn’t this why Jesus also added a severe warning to those who would reject the most obvious truth being broadcasted around them:  To those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing (of the truth he means), even what they have will be taken away” (Mark 4: 25). Is this any way to talk, especially here at Christmas? 



Well, isn’t the ‘truth’ what Christmas is finally all about?   The Word of truth has been made alive in flesh and blood and is right in front of us” (my own translation and interpretation of John 1:14).   If we accept this word as truth, not simply as an idea, but as Jesus himself,  who is the truth,  we’ll keep getting more ‘truth’ into other areas of our lives also.  But if we reject this truth, which God intended for us, not against us, then soon enough, all the rest of the light will fade too, until life becomes very dark.  



When the communist overtook Europe, they had developed their own version of truth that went to the truth of about Jesus Christ.  Part of this was easily detected in what the communist government did to Christmas and Christmas songs.   Since they knew that they would not easily eradicate Christmas from the social customs and psyche of the people, they decided to leave the tunes and the traditions, but would only change the words of the songs and the religious meanings of the Christmas traditions.   In short, they took Christ out of Christmas, but left the mention of goodwill, the gifts, and the good wishes  for health and happiness.   It went fairly well, at least at first, until the reality began to set it, the money ran out, and then, the darkness came upon them with a vengeance.   The deep ‘darkness’ of that communism was not only what Communism believed, as it was this belief about reality that was forced upon them through fear and intimidation.  (Check out the East German book or movie, “The Lives of Others” and you’ll see how dark life can be, when any kind of ‘truth’ is forced on people). 



One thing we can say for sure, when Jesus says he is making it hard for people to understand what they already don’t want to understand, Jesus is not forcing his truth on anyone.   Today, as has always been,  Christians are a minority people.  Even though there are still 2.4 Billion Christians from a world population of 7.2 Billion, Christians are only 1/3 of the world’s people may be even less of a majority here in the United States. Christianity has been on the decline in Europe for years, and now there is almost no Christianity left in the Middle East.  Just about all the churches mentioned in the Bible, do not exist anymore.   Several years ago, I visited Turkey, where there is not one single church left that is mentioned in the book of Revelation.  As church importance and church attendance falls among us, what will this mean for the few who are left?   Recently, someone asked me, “Pastor, do you think the rapture is about to take place?”  My answer was not as much about the rapture, as it is about us, “At the rate we’re going, there won’t be anyone left to rapture!”  Do we still have ‘ears to listen and pay attention?”



TRUTH WILL BE KNOWN BY ALL

What does it mean when we Christians become a minority in the world around us?   What does it mean when people don’t want to hear or understand what we believe about Jesus Christ?   Before I tell you what Jesus said in this text, let conclude by telling you about something that recently happened to me, when I was trying to tell someone a very important truth, but they weren’t believing a single thing I said.



It happened last year, when we heart breakingly had to turn our two precious twin granddaughters over to Child Protective Services.  As many of you know, our adopted daughter has a very serious mental illness, and she was unwilling to stay with us and take care of the children, so we decided it was best for them to go into foster care. 

When the social worker came to interview us, we told her everything we could about our daughter’s struggles.   We poured our hearts out to her, but do you what happened next?   She acted as if she didn’t believe us.  She claimed that my daughter would do better if we just left her alone.  She said that she could get the children back.  We did not agree with the Social worker, but we said, “OK, if that’s what you think, then it’s in your hands.”  What else could we say?



Do you know what happened?  Our daughter has gotten worse.  Nothing that the Social workers said came true.  Everything we told them, all the truth we told, all the things we predicted, has turned out exactly, if not worse than we said it would.  We are not happy about being right.  We would have loved to have been proven wrong.  The problem was, however, that the professionals, who were supposed to know what they were doing, would not listen to the truth we were telling them.   I can’t really say why they didn’t believe us, but I can tell you that now ‘the truth has come out’. 

They haven’t apologized for the negative things they said about us, but who apologizes anymore? 



All this that has happened to us reminds me this final message about ‘truth’ that Jesus talks about in Mark.   Right before our text, Jesus has a message, I’ve been saving for the very end.  Jesus says, that even if right now the truth is not being widely received  or is not taking root and not bearing fruit, don’t be fooled.   Some day,  “Everything hidden will be revealed, and everything secret will come out into the open.

Whoever has ears to listen should pay attention!" (Mk. 4:22-23 CEB)



The truth is worth listening for and paying attention to, even when it seems no one is listening.  Do you know why?  One day, Jesus says, everything “will come out in the open.”    You don’t have to force the truth on anyone, nor do you have to prove the truth to anyone, but you should try to find and live the truth, because one day, some day, some way, the truth will be fully known.  Those who want to know the truth can figure it this out.  Those who don’t want to know this truth, don’t figure it out only because they don’t want to.   Jesus is not being cruel here, Jesus is just being realistic.  He’s realistic not so some won’t get it, but in hope that we all someday will. 



The apostle Paul not only agreed that Jesus tells the truth, but Paul agreed that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life: “One day every head will bow and every tongue will confess Jesus as Lord (Phil 2:10).  But if this is all so true, why doesn’t God just tell us everything and give us the kingdom (v. 30) right now?  Why doesn’t God just reveal himself so clearly, that no one will mistake him, no one will miss him, and everyone can know everything about him so there won’t be one single chance having any doubt?    Well, if this is how God would work, wouldn’t this sound an awful lot like what I just said about the evil of communism?  The evil powers would never give you any choice in the matter.  They only force their own evil ways of ‘truths’ upon you.   



In Mark, however, we can see that Jesus is different, very different.   Jesus speaks in parables because he would never force truth, even his own.   Jesus always leaves us to freely choose or reject what, why, and who we will believe.   You can also be sure that Jesus will never force God’s truth upon you because this truth is not an idea, not a position, nor an argument, and not even a religious belief, but the truth is something everyone can and should believe in.  You know what that is, don’t you?



Let me answer it clearly, with this single question: would you want to force someone to say that they love you, when in reality you know that they really don’t?   God is not out to prove a point, but God is out to ‘prove his love for us’, that ‘even while we are still sinners  (Romans 5:8).  Even when we don’t know all the truth, and even when we don’t want to believe any truth, God is not out to prove his point by pouring down judgment on us, but God is out ‘to prove his love for us’ because this is the  ‘judgment’ that came down at the cross.   God wants us somehow, some way, and some day, to freely know this ‘truth’ which waits to be fully reveal in us right now. 



But you can’t force love, can you?  God waits on you because the ultimate truth is not about ideas, not religion, not about politics, nor is it about anything else in life, except that God wants to prove his love for us, for now and for eternity.   This is why Jesus lived.  This is what Jesus taught.  This is of course, why Jesus died, so that even while we are still sinners, God can ‘prove his love for us’. 



This ‘kingdom’ of love and grace has come ‘near’ (Mk 1:15) in Jesus Christ, but it still remains ‘hidden’ because God still waits for the kingdom to be received by and in us, just as it has been revealed to us and for us, in Jesus Christ.  If this kingdom of God is finally about God’s love, then it must be just as freely received as it has been freely given.  Only when this love has grown and matured in us and in this world, will the kingdom come once and for all: “Whenever the crop is ready,” Jesus says, “the farmer goes out to cut the grain because it's harvesttime.” (Mk. 4:29 CEB).



God’s readiness to ‘harvest’ His kingdom, is just as much based upon our readiness to receive it, as it is upon God’s readiness to give it.  Can we speed it up?  Can we slow it down?   Do you want to know the truth?   Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father, except through me? (Jn. 14:6).  When God, in his perfect love, decides that we are ready for the fullness of the kingdom, then the kingdom will come and the truth will be fully known, just as we are already known in God’s great love.  Isn’t it the full knowledge of this ‘love’ that makes everything ready to be fully revealed?   But God will only give us, as much as we are able to hear  (4:33).  Are you still listening?  Whoever has ears, should pay attention!  AMEN.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

"Recieve God's Goodness"

A Sermon Based Upon Mark 3: 20-35
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Third Sunday of Advent C,  December 13th,  2015

“When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him.  They were saying.  “He’s out of his mind!”  (Mark 3.21).

Life isn't meant to be easy, its meant to be lived; sometimes happy, other times rough. But with every up and down you learn lessons that make you strong.                                    ---Author Unknown

No one should ever say that the Christian life is easy nor that it ever gets any easier to try to live it.   Being a "Christian" wasn’t easy for Jesus either.   He was not immediately called Lord and Savior, but he was declared by the authorities to be ‘possessed by Beelzebul, ruler of the demons” (Mk. 3:22).   And not only were the legal and religious experts calling him names, some of the negativity about him was also coming from his own family, who said “He’s out of his mind” (3:21).

I don’t often talk about this.  I don’t really like too, but it must be mentioned.  When Teresa and I announced that we were going to be commissioned as missionaries in Germany, there was quite a lot of resistance.  Surprisingly, most of it was coming from our own families. 

The members of our families had several different ways of dealing with it.  Some were silent.  Others were obviously unexcited.  My mother said, “Joey, you don’t want to do this to me!”   My father was overheard telling someone, “I don’t know why Joey wants to go there!”   Teresa’s family were not very happy about it either.  When, at the commissioning service at Richmond, Dr. Keith Parks spoke to her parents, speaking about how proud they must be,  they stood their frozen in silence.   Coming family of seven siblings, there were even more of them to make unhappy, and at one time, they even thought we were ‘breaking up the family!  

From all those experiences and surprises, I learned one thing.  It’s one thing to go to church all your life and to call yourself a Christian, but it’s quite another to start being a Christian by being who we say we are.   

In the opening pages of the gospel of Mark, Jesus begins to practice the things he believes in.  It will eventually get him killed.  Within the first three chapters of Mark’s gospel, we encounter 5 different stories of conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities of his day.   Jesus touches and heals a leper, he should not have touched (1:40).  Jesus offers forgiveness to someone, as only a priest should do (2:1-12).  Jesus eats with sinners, even calling one to be his disciple (2: 13-17).   Jesus refuses to require that his disciples publically ‘fast’ like others do (2: 18-28).  Worst of all, Jesus heals someone on the Sabbath day, considering the needs of people more important than the demands of religion (3: 1-6).  These 'conflict stories' are proof that was not easy to be Jesus and won’t be easy for us to follow Jesus either.  Nothing that is worth anything will be easy, but it can be worth it. 

ACCEPT THE CHALLENGE
Today’s bible lesson helps us realize why we should follow Jesus, even when, as the gospel songs says, “It’s not an easy road!”   

Recently in the news,  a judge told that two thirteen year-old- children, who tried to murder their friend, that they would be  prosecuted as adults.  They said that they were going to kill their friend, because the ‘slender man’ would hurt them if they didn’t.  (http://news.yahoo.com/two-wisconsin-girls-tried-adults-slenderman-case-report-193515028.html).   

Though their was something outlandish about their crime, there is also something very common about it.  Too often, people will try to take, what they see as the ‘easier’ way through a situation, but as a result, they find themselves having to face life in an even more difficult way.   Only had these girls resolved to deal with their problems with this girl in a much healthier way?  Where were their parents?  Were the parents also taking the easy way by not being involved enough in their lives?   What may have seemed hard in that moment, could have turned out much better in the long run, if they all had only accepted the challenges in better ways.

Jesus, certainly could have taken an easy way too.  Mark’s gospel doesn’t tell us much about Jesus' ‘testing’ in the wilderness, but the same victory over ‘temptation’ comes out in Mark's opening stories about Jesus' conflict with authorities.   But Jesus doesn’t give in, nor does he give up, when people were turning against him.  He accepted the challenge of what it meant to live and bring the message of God’s goodness and grace into the world.  Even if it meant that he would have to ‘suffer’ and ‘to die’ doing it, which of course, he did.

Who would ever want to accept a challenge that can mean death?  Well, doesn’t living also mean that one day you will have to die?  And will you fall for everything and live for nothing, or will you live for something and die for something?  Isn’t this the right mantra of the Christian life?   In Jesus Christ, we are called not just to be forgiven, but we are also called to live, not to live above sin, but to live and to die for something; toi always be working against our shortcomings, with our struggles, even when we know our own failures and sin.  This is what it means to be human, does it not?   We are to answer the call to both understand our limits, but also to reach to discover our God-given potential, which is rooted, less in us, than it is rooted in the goodness and grace of God.

These opening pages of Mark’s gospel, from one angle, can look insane.  These first few stories come at us, one by one, with extreme rapidity.  Jesus touches the untouchable.  Jesus forgives sin without a priest.  Jesus eats with sinners.  Jesus doesn’t require his disciples to fast.   Jesus breaks religious laws, even the most important of all to a Jew---observing Sabbath.  

We can understand can’t we, where Jesus’ family is coming from when they come to their sibling and son to ‘take control of him’, saying “He’s out of his mind!”  Genius, whether it has been in spiritual contemplation, or even in scientific discovery, has often been misjudged, at least at first, as being extreme, ridiculous and very unreasonable.  Nothing that Jesus seemed to be doing appeared to be very traditional, conservative nor conventional.  Where do you think this kind of ‘politic’ will take him?  Is Jesus really being smart?

But Jesus isn’t trying to be smart, but he’s trying to do the right thing.  Jesus is trying bring the medical, religious, legal and political world back into line with common sense and compassion.  We can see this now.  He was reaching out to an outcast leper, even if he is a leper.  He was offering forgiveness as a priority because it is our greatest healing human power.   Jesus eats with sinners, because in reality, in this world there is anyone better to eat with, especially when you want to help people.   Jesus does not require his disciples to fast, because they’ve got better things to do and much more to rejoice about in this moment.  Finally, Jesus does not require legalistic observances of the Sabbath, not because he’s against it, but because he knows what the Sabbath is about---to meet human need, not the needs of God.  God is God, and is in need of nothing, compared to what we need from God or from each other.     While all that Jesus was doing seemed crazy and even demonic to those around him, it was really, Jesus was the only ‘sane’ person in his very ‘insane’ world, but they couldn’t see it.  We seldom ever do.

I’ll never forget receiving the call from a lady in the church who wanted to talk to me about a problem she was having with her daughter.  As I was driving to her house, I knew that her daughter was attending one of secular, worldly schools, (at Chapel Hill, by the way, but it could just as well been Wake Forest or Duke) and I wondered what she had happened.  After I arrived and we got into the discussion, the mother told me that her daughter revealed her plans of finishing her studies upon graduation, and instead advancing herself with more degrees, perhaps in medicine, she was going to marry a man, become episcopal, and then go to work helping unprivileged children in California.  The mother looked at me, and frantically asked,  “Pastor, how could she do such a thing?  How could she give up her studies so soon and start working in such a low paying job?   What’s gotten into her?

I thought for a moment, remembering a story Will Willimon once shared about a similar situation.  There was only one answer:  “Sunday School!”   “What do you mean, pastor, she asked.  “I mean that there is always the possibility of trouble when someone gets serious about those things their parents and Sunday school teachers are teaching them about love, compassion, about denying yourself and taking up the cross and about being your brothers (or sister’s keeper).   We should have known, that when people really get serious about this stuff, it could really spell ‘trouble’.

OVERCOME THE EVIL
Jesus was serious about the ‘things of God’ and he was willing to ‘go to bat’ for the causes of the compassionate, coming kingdom of God.   He was willing to say what needed to be said, and he was willing to do what needed to be done.  He was even willing, as the book of Hebrews dares to say, to be willing to ‘learn obedience through  the things he would suffer  (Heb. 5:8).   You don’t accept a challenge like this unless something beyond the norm of this world has gotten into you.  And this something does not have to be bad, it can be very, very good.

We can see this ‘good’ that was in Jesus even reflected in those who began to oppose him and wanted him dead.   While Jesus’ own family were confused about him, they really were trying to protect Jesus and bring him home for his own good.  But the legal experts and religious leaders of Jesus’ day were not out to send Jesus home, they were so quickly offended by Jesus’ who challenged their own authority, that even after they realized a man’s crippled, withered hand, had been healed on the Sabbath, they got together with people they didn’t normally like to ‘plan how to destroy’ (CEB) or ‘to kill’ (NIV) Jesus (Mark 3:6).   

There are all kinds of other ‘threats’ that come out against Jesus’ ministry, right from the very beginning.  Even the demons that were being exorcised out of people, would come out declaring him to be “God’s son! (Mark 3:11) which could get him convicted of blasphemy by Jerusalem or of treason by Rome.   Now, in the text before us,  the ‘legal experts’ charge him with being in a league with “Satan” himself,  only able to cast out devils because he has the ‘power’ and ‘authority’ of the supreme demon within himself (3:22).   Here, Jesus must defend himself, asking, “How can Satan throw out Satan?”  If a kingdom is involved in a civil war, it will eventually collapse.   It can’t endure.  Then, Jesus reveals the heart of the matter.  If they go against the ‘good’ that He is doing, all in the name of God’s goodness and grace, then they are ‘insulting the Holy Spirit’.   This is the one sin that can never be forgiven.  If you call good evil, and evil good, how can God save you when there is nothing left to save?   This is his point (Mk. 23-30).

When we read such an intense, dark, and difficult passage as this, it can be very disheartening.   Who can live the Christian life when there is so much negative that will attempt to stand against us?  Who wants to follow Jesus, when it will only get negative, hurtful things hurled at you?  Who would, in their right mind, want to go this difficult, hard and narrow way, when there is already so much stacked against you?   It doesn’t make sense does it?   It didn’t make sense being Jesus, and it still doesn’t make much sense to get serious about following Jesus when it can get you in so much trouble.

Our text from Mark does not yet fully answer, why Jesus had to be Jesus, nor does it answer why we should follow Jesus, even when it can be hard.   But we can see something already.   There were people who did follow Jesus, even when it was hard.  There were already disciples who wanted to learn from him (Mk 1: 16-20), leaving their fishing nets to go with him to ‘catch people’.   There were also apostles who wanted him to ‘send’ them out into the harsh world to ‘preach’ this good news (3: 13-19).  Even as some turned against him, and more would too, there were those few who understood that Jesus had an ‘authority’, or a ‘power’ and a ‘message’ over the ‘evil’ they already knew too well in that world,  which they had never observed in anyone else (Mk 1: 27-28).

Later on, in interpreting the Christian life and what it means to follow Jesus to the Romans,  Paul writes that to the same Romans the gospel of Mark was probably written to, explaining to these Roman Christians, that if they really want to follow Jesus, and to find the grace and goodness God has for them, then they must learn not to ‘pay back evil actions with more evil actions’ (12: 17), but they must learn to ‘defeat evil with good’ and not ‘be defeated with evil’ (Rom 12:21).   It’s certainly not an easy thing ‘live at peace’ and not to ‘try to get revenge for ourselves’.  But if we really believe in God, then we must live like we do, and let ‘revenge belong to God’.  Our task as Christians is not to solve all the world’s problems, but to be a solution to the problems right in front of us.  “If your enemy is hungry, feed him.  If he is thirsty, give him a drink.  By doing this, you will put purifying fires on and in his head.  In this way, good can overcome the evil, but you must join in this fight in this way.    

REDEFINE YOUR FAMILY
So far, so good, right.  The Christian life is hard, but life is never that easy.  Even if you try to make life easy, you’ll just make it harder, so accept the challenge.  And the challenge you should accept is to overcome the evil by doing good, even when others call you names for doing it.  People don’t like someone who reminds them of what they should be doing, but aren’t.  Get used to it.  If you will keep doing the good, sowing good seeds, a good harvest will grow and you will find the good reward, even if you don’t please everybody.   This is part of what it means to be Christian as we accept the challenge to overcome the evil that still arises in our own world. 

But perhaps the hardest part of receiving the goodness and grace of God, which may go against the grain of the world around us, is not what happens that is hard for us, nor is it when people start to call us names.  But perhaps the hardest thing that ever happens in life is when our own family, friends, or church don’t fully understand what we are doing, what we are saying especially when we are convinced that what we are doing is right and is good.  That is when the pain of the cross, really comes home.  It’s not when our enemies rise up against us, but it’s when our friends and family desert us, rejects us, or can’t simply go with us.  This is what can and does often bring the deepest human pain---the fear of rejection, being alone, or being misunderstood.

If you follow your faith, and if you try to be true to your heart, you always run this risk.   Jesus himself said that ‘foxes have holes, and the bird’s have nests, but the Son of man has no place to rest his head’.   That’s the difficulty of rejection.   We read it all over the New Testament when Jesus is rejected as he announces his call to preach, or when Jesus is run out of his own hometown, or finally, when Jesus’ own disciples desert him or when his people, some who may have never really heard of him, are shouting out,  crucify him, crucify him!   This was taking place in the same Jerusalem who early in that same week received him like royalty, but that was short-lived.

What will you do when you follow your faith or stay true to your heart?  Some, of course, are afraid too, because they know what it might mean, and they love their family and friends so very much.   But I don’t think following Jesus means that we have to abandon or reject our family, even if they don’t always understand us.   I do, however, think that sometimes our family, will be like Jesus’ own family and at they will not always understand us.  But even this should only be seen as only a ‘test’ of their love for us.  Jesus’ family didn’t understand him, but they didn’t reject him forever.  Mary was with him at the cross.  One of Jesus’ brothers became a leader in the early church.  

In this text, as Jesus is misunderstood and rejected by his own family, this is not the end of his relationship with them, but it is the beginning of redefinition.  If Jesus is going to be who he knew he is, then his relationship with his own family does not have to end, but it does have to change.  And so it will be when we get serious about following Jesus too.  Our family may not always understand, nor go where we go, or know what we know, but if they are truly family, who have the capacity to love, one day they will understand and love us.  Until that day comes, we must let them know where our heart is, just like Jesus does, when he says,  “Look here are my mother and my brothers.  Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (3:35).  

Several years ago, a young man came to be and wanted to be baptized.  But he had grown up in a communist country, and his parents where against him coming to church and being in my Bible study group.  He asked me to baptize him.  I told him that I believed his faith was real, and I was ready and willing to baptize him, but I also told him that since he was still a minor and living at home, that he should not go against the will of his parents.  Someday that time would come, but he had to decide when that time was.  I would not force it upon him, nor did I think God would either.  As he became an adult, and was able to leave home, then, he could redefine who he was, on his own terms, and on the terms that he understood to be the will of God. 

What decision did he make?  He decided to wait.  I took a lot of heat for this  advice from some missionary colleagues who thought I should have at least baptized him in secret.  But Jesus did not call us to be ‘secret’ disciples, but he did call us to have our own minds, to be our own persons, as we understand and interpret the will of God in our own lives.  I don’t think a parent nor a missionary should violate or even force the heart of a person who is sincerely seeking God’s will.  I think freedom of conscious and religion is the most wonderful thing, and does much more good than harm.  But I also think Jesus shows us just how ‘serious’ this is, and calls us to ‘count the cost’ before we follow and walk the narrowest way.   The costs can be high, but they will always pay high the highest dividends.  Someday we will have to walk.   Just like everyone must grow up and decide their own lives,  we should only accept the challenge to overcome the evil around us, when we are ready to receive all the goodness and grace of God which still means paying the costs that will be incurred.   

I think I just told you this story a few weeks back, but it’s worth telling you again, just in case you missed it.  Will Willimon, former dean of divinity and pastor at Duke Divinity School, tells of a speaker he once invited to speak to some of his students at Duke.  The speaker began his message by telling the students they would not like what he was going to say and they would not want to do what he was going to ask them to do.  He was going to ask them to give up all their luxuries and go to some far off place, to some nobody, forgotten people, who were poor, obnoxious and maybe underserving, and to give up their comforts to serve their needs, and maybe not ever be thanked for it.  He said he knew they wouldn’t do that, so he closed the message he was going to share and said, he would leave the application forms up front just in case, somebody wanted to see what he knew they wouldn’t be interested in doing. 

As the speaker closed the session, and in great surprise to him, just about all those rich, spoiled, kids came down and wanted to go and do what they shouldn’t have wanted to go and do.  And do you know why they said they wanted to sign up for it?  They said that they were tired of having everything and really having nothing.  They wanted their lives to count for something!  And they were ready to go nowhere and even to suffer  if they could have what they never had but wanted more than anything else.

Do you know what they wanted?  They wanted challenge, they wanted a greater good than 'goods' in life, and they wanted a family they could really call ‘family.   Who would have thought it would have ended like that?  We wouldn't, but maybe Jesus would.   Amen

Sunday, December 6, 2015

“Dare the Impossible”

A Sermon Based Upon Mark 2: 1-12
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Second Sunday of Advent C,  December 6th,  2015

“Which is easier---to say to a paralyzed person,  ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say,  ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk?’ (Mk. 2:9 CEB)

"Why, sometimes I’ve believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”  
                                                                     ----The Queen in Lewis Carroll's Alice and Wonderland


It seemed like just another Bible Study on a summer Wednesday evening at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  A 21 year old Dylann Roof entered off the street, was warmly welcomed, sat down to listen.  For almost an hour after praying with and hearing everything the pastor had to say, he stood up and opened fire on the Bible study participants, killing 9, including the pastor, who was also a state senator in South Carolina. 

After the white supremacist murderer was captured apprehended the very next day, Nadine Collier, daughter of one of Dylann Roof’s nine victims, had one message for the suspected killer: “I forgive you.”

At Roof’s bond hearing, Chief Magistrate James Gosnell allowed Collier to deliver a statement to the suspect who joined via videoconference: “I just want everybody to know, to you, I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again, I will never be able to hold her again. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you, and I forgive you.” The video feed shows Roof watching with a chilling blank stare.

What does it take to forgive someone like Dylan Roof?  How does one muster the courage, the conviction, or the moral fiber to grant such a gift to someone who has already taken so much? http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2015/06/22/what-does-it-take-to-forgive-someone-like-dylan-roof/#sthash.42AoPOmF.dpuf).  One thing for sure, what the members of those families and that church did, got the attention of the entire world.  It also caused quite a stir and a national debate about whether or not this act of forgiveness was premature (http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/07/04/us/ap-us-charleston-shooting-forgiveness.html).

MAKE FORGIVENESS A PRIORITY
One may debate about timing of forgiving, but however you feel about forgiving a murderer, especially one who had just killed a member of your family, you must admit, those folks at Mother Emmanuel AME Zion in Charleston put on quite a display of “their” Christian faith for the world to witness.  They certainly had a distinguished role model too.  As Jesus himself said, while he was being crucified, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”   Dylan Roof knew what he was doing when he murdered those innocent people in that historic church in cold blood, but maybe those disciples in Charleston also knew what they were doing too.   For no practicing and doing the hard work of forgiveness is one of the marks of a true disciple of Jesus Christ. 

Mark’s gospel seems to be written in such a way to show that forgiving sins was a top priority of Jesus’ ministry.  This is made clear when a paralyzed man was surprisingly lowered down through the roof and Jesus looks straight at him and says, “Child, your sins are forgiven!”  (2:5).   Even though some have suggested Jesus was forgiving this fellow for destroying the roof of his home (which may have been true), that would seem unlikely to be the whole motive since this paralyzed man’s friends were actually the ones responsible.  

Jesus’ agenda to quickly or immediately forgive this man upsets the normal process of granting forgiveness, which it was believed God would only do through a ‘certified’ priest.   By referring to himself as “son of man” (NRSV) or ‘the human one’ (CEB), Jesus chooses a term right out of the Hebrew Bible (Dan. 7: 13ff), referring to a savior-like figure who was to come to usher in a new age, establishing God’s kingdom-rule and judgement on earth (Mk 1.15).  Ironically Jesus uses this designation, not to mete out judgment, but as to offer God’s forgiveness and grace to sinners.  Jesus’ defines himself as a ‘physician’ who has ‘not’ come ‘to call the righteous’ but has come ‘to call sinners to repentance’   (Mark 2.17).  

Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, which Mark’s Jesus defines as ‘giving his life as a ransom for many’(Mk 10.45) will later be interpreted by Paul and the church to be in sync with Jesus’ own agenda and to forgive, which the apostle Paul understood as God ‘reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people's sins against them. (2 Cor. 5:19 CEB).  Thus, the agenda of Jesus in Mark is seen as nothing less than the agenda of God through the entire gospel event.  This desire of God to ‘forgive’ human sin through Christ’s death on the cross is God’s desire to ‘show his love for us’ ‘while we were still sinners (Rom. 5.8).  

Few would doubt that it’s ‘God’s business to forgive’ (Heinrich Heine) sins through Jesus Christ, but it is also just as important to the gospel message to understand that forgiveness should be our human and Christian agenda too.   It would be a tragic mistake to expect God’s forgiveness of us, without our own willingness to forgive others.  In the middle of the Lord’s prayer and Christian piety are those unforgettable words,  Father forgive us our sins (trespasses or debts), as we forgive those who sin (trespass, debtors) against us.” 

While Mark’s gospel doesn’t give us ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, it does give us even more direct words from Jesus saying, “Whenever you stand up praying, if you have something against anyone, forgive so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your wrongdoings” (Mark 11:25).  What this means is that there is no gospel for you, unless you give gospel forgiveness to others in Jesus’ name.  Isn’t this why that Amish community who had five girls murdered forgave so quickly, even if it still hurt?  Isn’t this why those hurting folks at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, S.C., also went against their own overwhelming hurt and anger to forgive Dylann Roof?  They were not doing this for the perpetrators were they?  They were doing this to preserve their own true personal trust in God’s forgiveness.  Only through faith in the ultimate justice of God can a person forgive those who intentionally hurt us.

YOU WILL NEED A COMMUNITY
But forgiving those who sin against us is not possible in our strength alone.  It takes a community to be able find and to give forgiveness.  Just as important as the forgiveness given to the paralyzed man, is the ‘faith’ (Mk. 2:5) of his four friends who brought him to Jesus.  He would not have received the forgiveness Jesus gave unless they had lifted him up, broke through the barriers to bring him into Christ’s presence.

This image of a person ‘paralyzed’ by life, needing the help of others to find the gift of God’s forgiveness, reminds me of a powerful story I heard which came out of the aftershock of September eleventh, 2001.   As we all recall, many people flocked back into churches after the attacks; some who had only recently become delinquents from church, and others who hadn’t been in church for many years.  I can’t recall the source of the story, but it was told as one man realized he needed to come back to church, he told his friends it he couldn’t because it would be hypocritical for him.  He said that when they came to the part of the service where it was customary to pray “Father forgive, as we forgive  he said with all that has just happened, he just couldn’t  pray that right now. “That’s O.K.”, his friends replied.  “Come and pray with us, and when we come to that part of the prayer, you go silent, and we will pray it for you until the day you can pray it again.” 

Isn’t this what we all need a ‘community’ for?   We all have times when it is impossible for us to be fully Christian, even when we desire to be with our whole heart.   The Christian life is, in some ways, always impossible, but it can be especially impossible when it comes to forgiving an intended hurt.  We not only need God’s help to do this, but we will also need the help and strength of our brothers and sisters in faith.  Because they want to do the will of God, just as we do, sometimes only they, and their strength will be able to pull us along, when we are tempted, weak, or incapable of following the demands of the gospel for ourselves. 

Forgiveness is always hard, and it is sometimes impossible for us.  And shouldn’t it be nearly ‘impossible’ if it IS really from God?  Recall that wonderful line from the the Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Wonderland.   Alice had just protested that ‘one can’t do impossible things.  I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen.  “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day.  Why, sometimes I’ve believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast” (http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Quotations/Dodgson.html).

Forgiveness is one of those ‘impossible’ demands of the gospel, which will almost always seems impossible in that moment as we are most hurt, but as time goes by, that forgiveness become the ‘impossible thing’ that will only make the most sense.  
Forgiveness will finally make sense to us because it is the only thing which will finally release us from the ‘hurt’ and allow to heal us, and help us conquer our hurt, so we can move on toward the future God wants to give us.  Only by living toward this ‘future’ can the full healing power of forgiveness be released within to change and reshape us.

This  power to forgive, as we are forgiven, does not always happen all at once.   We will not always have the power to pray, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”, as Jesus did.  We aren’t Jesus.   We can’t do this alone.  But we can have Christ’s power released in us, and this is why we need ‘others’ who share the vision of God’s coming kingdom with us.  We need their strength, for this is how God strengthens us, so that when life has us on the ‘ropes’ and takes our own strength away, we will have God’s presence and power given to us through the strength of others who’s concern and care remind us that only God’s redeeming love and grace can and will fully and finally redeem us all.

MOVING BEYOND YOURSELF
To do the ‘impossible’ work of forgiveness will mean doing the most impossible thing of removing your own ‘self’ from the center of your universe.

Certainly, most controversial in this great story is just that Jesus pronounces forgiveness for this paralyzed man, but it is in how Jesus pronounces it.   The main concern in this story is not that this man had sinned, nor is it even that Israel had become a nation of sinners, nor that that these self-righteous legal experts proved to be the worst of sinners by all their complaining, but the main offense of this story is that Jesus announces that God desires to forgive sin without any priest, without any religious ritual, or without any obvious human input at all, except for this ‘faith’ that is particularly observed in these four friends who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus. 

What Jesus is declaring in this text is what the Christian faith must still declare in the world:  God has always desired to forgive and restore us, even if don’t know how to ask for it.   And often, strangely enough, it is not our faith that is the key to receiving and giving this forgiveness, but it is also the faith of others who believe in us, for us, and with us, that God desires for us to forgive and be forgiven.  Through Jesus Christ, God desires to release us from the power of sin to release the power of healing into our lives, by saying to us, through our own faith, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” 

While there is a lot of ‘strange’ science in some of  Sigmund Freud’s work, there are also some powerful elements of truth, especially when it come to understanding the invisible workings of the unconscious mind.  Freud attributed the illnesses of many of his patients to feelings that were deep within, often forgotten by the conscious mind, but still having their influence upon their lives, in dreams, feelings, and sometimes even in physically unexplained illnesses.  This was especially the case with one girl named “Anna O”, who was a patient of one of Freud’s colleagues.  Anna seemed to be physically suffering hysteria from hidden emotional pains experienced early in her life, but which were still not fully healed and were unresolved in her heart and mind.   We might even use the word that was the key to her healing as ‘forgiveness’.   It was only through gentle ‘talk’ with the patient, rather than cold, impersonal or harsh prescribed treatments that the patient could be hoped to be cured and restored to wholeness and health (http://www.psychologistanywhereanytime.com/famous_psychologist_and_psychologists/psychologist_famous_sigmund_freud.htm).

None of us know all the possibilities of the power of forgiveness until we unleash them into our hearts.  And we can’t unleash these powers on our own, we need God’s help.  This is what this powerful story is mostly about, isn’t it.  The help that this ‘paralyzed’ man received from his friends and most of all, from the forgiving love of God, being unleashed through the healing presence of Jesus Christ.

Can God’s forgiveness help heal our lives, and especially our own ‘hateful’ world?  Can forgiveness help us fully encounter the love of Jesus Christ, not only in our own personal lives at Christmas, but also in the greater world around us?  Waldo Beach once said that ‘it is fairly easy to see the operations of grace and forgiveness within the private circles of family and friends, for instance in the constant love of a mother for a rebellious son.  But can the forgiveness of sins be practiced on the stock exchange or in labor negotiations?  Can there be such a thing as ‘gracious’ politics?  The cynic and maybe even the ‘sensible’ in us would answer “no!”  Realism may lead Christians to think forgiveness as only part of our personal and private affairs.  We think it we should be ‘fair’ in our business and social dealings, but not necessarily forgiving. 

However, Beach concludes, there are occasional moments in history, when political decisions must be infused with and tempered by the spirit of charity only reflected in the moral goodness and grace of God.  One instance he named is seen in the policy of Abraham Lincoln, one of history’s most sensitive religious thinkers who had experienced both God’s judgment and God’s grace.   As a response to judgment of war, “Lincoln prosecuted the cause of the war against the south in all its necessary cruelty and heart ache.  But Lincoln too was moved by the compassion of grace to look for a way of forgiveness beyond punishment.”

In hope of restoring the union beyond the great civil strife that all had known, Lincoln began his second Inaugural address with an opening statement of forgiveness, saying,  With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us finish the world we are in, to bind up the nation’[s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphans, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations...”   Somehow, Lincoln knew one can’t fully experience healing until you fully forgive.  Only by offering healing do you receive the fullness of healing yourself.   And our greatest healing often begins with the simplest of words such as: “Child, Your sins are forgiven!    Amen.